Jungle Rivers & Magnificent Birds Cruise Log Oct 25—Nov 08, 2004

Posted by Peter English


Peter English

Peter English became interested in birds while in the fourth grade. He graduated from Williams College in 1988 and received his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Texa...

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Join Peter English, Victor Emanuel, David Ascanio, and Steve Hilty on a 12-day journey starting in the Orinoco Delta and moving up the Amazon River.

Cruise Log Entries

Nov 06, 2004

Birding from the top deck

Birding from the top deck — Photo: Peter English

We were all on deck before sunrise to watch as the ship entered the Narrows, and were not disappointed. For hours we were kept busy with a wide variety of hawks, eagles, and other birds on both sides of the ship. Highlights included King Vulture, Short-tailed Hawk, Slender-billed Kite, Plumbeous Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, Gray-headed Kite, Black Caracara, Red-throated Caracara, Slender-billed Kite, Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, Black Hawk-Eagle, Laughing Falcon, and Bat Falcon. We also saw White-throated and Channel-billed toucans; and Red-necked, Lettered, and Chestnut-eared Aracaris; Chestnut-fronted Macaws, Mealy, Orange-winged, and Red-fan parrots; and Tui and Golden-winged parakeets. Throughout the Narrows we also saw Pink and Gray river dolphins surfacing alongside the ship.
A forested island in the Narrows

A forested island in the Narrows — Photo: Peter English

After lunch we took a break from the birding to go over the list of birds seen on the trip. The final list will be mailed out to participants after it has been carefully reviewed, but some impressive numbers of species were seen including: 34 species of raptors, 20 species of parrots, 22 species of hummingbirds, 30 species of antbirds, 55 species of flycatchers, and 10 species of manakins.

Everyone voted for the favorite bird species of the trip, and the winner was… Hoatzin! Coming in closely tied for second place were Gray-winged Trumpeter and Fiery-tailed Awlbill.

The VENT leaders

The VENT leaders — Photo: Peter English

This will be the last update from this wonderful cruise. Tomorrow we dock at Belem, Brazil and begin our journeys home. We have had a wonderful time together, met new friends and reconnected with old friends, seen more bird species than anyone could have anticipated and most importantly enjoyed our time together.

Nov 05, 2004

Cruising up the Amazon River

Cruising up the Amazon River — Photo: Peter English

Today we arrived at the mouth of the Amazon River and moved roughly 100 miles up the river to the town of Santana. Here we took time to pass through the very conscientious Brazilian immigration and customs process and then continued up the Amazon.

A local boat in Santana, Brazil

A local boat in Santana, Brazil — Photo: Peter English

Throughout the day we enjoyed a series of lectures including an overview of the diversity of Ecuador by Paul Greenfield. Paul shared his lifetime of experience traveling throughout the country, and pointed out how accessible Ecuador has become in recent years.

Sunset over the Amazon

Sunset over the Amazon — Photo: Peter English

During the late afternoon many of us gathered on the top of the ship to see Snowy Egrets, a Capped Heron, a Peregrine Falcon, Chestnut-fronted Macaws and other parrots along the banks and flying over the forest. After an hour of enjoying the spectacle of the Amazon, a beautiful sunset ended our first day in the most celebrated river on earth.

Nov 04, 2004

As we traveled today at sea we thought about the great success that we have had on this trip. Victor felt it exceeded his expectations, a feeling that many shared. Not only have over 300 species of birds been seen, including some of the rarest in South America, but we have had good looks at some classic tropical birds including toucans, parrots, macaws, tanagers and cotingas.

Without a doubt, there are two reasons that this trip has been such a great success. First, David Ascanio did an outstanding job of scouting the entire route and planning our stops. Second, we had a world-class team of leaders, each of whom has spent a great amount of time studying Neotropical birds. These leaders included:

Dr. Steve Hilty, one of the foremost experts on the birds of South America and the author of Birds of Colombia and Birds of Venezuela, two of the most important guides ever written on the birds of South America.

VENT leaders David Ascanio and Steve Hilty

VENT leaders David Ascanio and Steve Hilty — Photo: Peter English

David Ascanio is an extremely talented young Venezuelan ornithologist. He has made a significant contribution to knowledge of Venezuelan avifauna and conservation. He played a key role in the and execution of this trip.

David Wolf is a senior VENT leader who has led dozens of trips in Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru. He is one of our most popular leaders and is renowned for his ability to share information.

David Wolf in action

David Wolf in action — Photo: Peter English

Andy Whittaker lives in Manaus, Brazil, and along with Kevin Zimmer is writing a guide to the birds of Brazil. Andy co-led all of our Amazon cruises and has spent years doing research on Neotropical birds. He has a great ability to sort out the vocalizations of a great many species.

Victor Emanuel (left) and Andy Whittaker (right)

Victor Emanuel (left) and Andy Whittaker (right)

Victor Emanuel is the President of VENT, a company that he started nearly 30 years ago. VENT has been at the forefront of birding tours worldwide for decades, and this is largely due to Victor's infectious love of birding and sharing the wonders of the world with his clients.

Paul Greenfield is the co-author of Birds of Ecuador. He has spent years studying and painting Neotropical birds. As an artist, he brings a special perspective.

Dr. Peter English is the Executive Director of Tropical Nature, a non-profit organization that has built some of the finest lodges in the Neotropics including the Napo Wildlife Center in Ecuador. He has co-led many VENT tours and brings to tours his knowledge not only of bird identification, but of biology and conservation.

Carol Walton has worked on the staff of many cruise ships that specialize in natural history. She has broad knowledge of the fauna and flora of the Neotropics and enjoys sharing this with others.

Cullen Hanks and Brian O'Shea are two young graduate students, both of whom attended VENT birding camps as teenagers. One of those camps was in Mexico, where they had their first exposure to the Neotropics. They both have traveled extensively in Guyana and Suriname and their local knowledge was a benefit to everyone.

Tomorrow we enter the Amazon River and look forward to an afternoon of birding.

Nov 03, 2004

Yesterday was a full day, and so much of today's update will cover yesterday's activities. Most of us left at dawn for the Brownsberg Reserve in south-central Suriname.

The Brownsberg excursion was a wonderful day in what Steve Hilty has described as among the tallest forests in South America. The area is extremely well preserved with unusually tall and straight trees. As soon as we arrived we were treated to incredible views of a flock of seven Gray-winged Trumpeters. These bizarre, mostly velvety black birds, are only found in well protected forests. They are the size and shape of a guineafowl. One of their most interesting and attractive features is the patch of iridescent feathers on their neck which is purple, green or bluish depending on the angle of the light. As we watched the flock they calmly ate in the clearing and after about 30 minutes slowly blended back into the forest.

Gray-winged Trumpeter

Gray-winged Trumpeter — Photo: Peter English

After the Trumpeters left, we divided into four groups and spread out along a narrow road to find the specialties of the area. Several groups found the very local White-throated Pewee as well as Helmeted Pygmy-Tyrant, Black-tailed Trogon, White-necked Puffbird, Golden-olive, Yellow-throated, and Chestnut woodpeckers, and Guianan Toucanet. One of the great things about this forest was the very impressive mixed-species flocks – a sample of what we found in these flocks included Cinereous Antshrike, Fasciated Antshrike, Mouse-colored Antshrike, and five species of antwrens (Pygmy, Brown-bellied, White-flanked, Long-winged, and Gray). Away from flocks we found an equally impressive number of antbird species including Gray Antbird, Amazonian Antshrike, Warbling Antbird, Ferruginous-backed Antbird, Wing-banded Antbird, and Scale-backed Antbird.

Scale-backed Antbird

Scale-backed Antbird — Photo: Peter English

We all met for lunch at an overlook of Van Blommestein Lake to enjoy the cool breeze while we ate, when a shout of "Ornate Hawk-Eagle!" erupted. Within moments 4 spotting scopes were focused on a beautiful adult eagle perched only 30 yards away and everyone was treated to fantastic views of this beautiful rufous, white, and slate gray bird. Other birds we saw from the overlook included a perched White Hawk, a Bat Falcon catching insects. Just over our heads in a Clusia Red-legged and Green honeycreepers and Golden-olive woodpeckers were eating the fruit.

After lunch we went back out on the road to watch the afternoon activity. Earlier in the morning we had seen a group of three Black Curassows cross the road and walk into the forest. Curassows are very large and as a result are typically among the first species to disappear when humans enter an area. In the afternoon our good fortune continued and we found another group of four Black Curassows. Most large animals also typically disappear when humans enter and area, and then wildness of Brownsberg was underscored again when we found Brown Capuchin and a Gray Brocket Deer.

Tall forest along a road at Brownsberg

Tall forest along a road at Brownsberg — Photo: Peter English

We returned to the ship just in time to begin our departure from Suriname and steamed past Paramaribo at sunset. Since then we have been at sea on our way to the Amazon River.

Today we had a full schedule of lectures as we head south. Peter English gave a talk explaining Lek behavior, Steve Hilty gave a talk on his favorite places to go birding in South America, and Andy Whittaker told us about the birding opportunities in his adopted home of Brazil.

Nov 01, 2004

Last night we moved another time zone east and changed our clocks an hour ahead. By around 9 a.m. (in the new time zone) we got our first sight of Suriname and began moving up the Suriname River. We had some interesting birding, with both Parasitic and Pomarine jaegers, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Common and Gull-billed terns, and a few immature Gray-breasted Martins. Perhaps our most unexpected sighting was a Dickcissel that flew alongside our ship while we were out of sight of land and then continued southward to the coast.

Great Potoo

Great Potoo — Photo: Peter English

In the afternoon we took buses to the Meerzorg, just over the new bridge from Paramaribo, to bird the swamp forest (dominated by Swamp Imortelle) and mangrove forest. We immediately found a Great Potoo, and then shortly after we found another. Highlights included Green-rumped Parrotlet, Blood-colored Woodpecker, Ashy-headed Greenlet, Arrowhead Piculet, Green-throated and Black-throated mangos, Striped Cuckoo, Pied Water-Tyrant, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

Rufous Crab Hawk in flight

Rufous Crab Hawk in flight — Photo: Peter English

One of the birds we most hoped to find today was the Rufous Crab-Hawk. This hawk has one of the most restricted ranges of any hawk in the world, being confined to the mangroves of northeastern South America. The birding groups were able to find both an adult and an immature in beautiful afternoon light, and everyone was able to get great looks. Other hawk highlights from the afternoon were Savannah Hawk, Great Black Hawk, and Yellow-headed Caracara.

Rufous Crab Hawk

Rufous Crab Hawk — Photo: Peter English

The Rufous Crab-Hawk was a new species for Victor, one of the birds he had most wanted to see on this trip. We were all pleased to be with him when he got a new lifer!

Tomorrow we will travel to Brownsberg in Central Suriname to see the tall forest on the plateau and look for some of the most exciting birds in Suriname. We will return late, so there will be no update tomorrow.

Oct 31, 2004

We left the ship at dawn to explore a logging road just a few minutes by Zodiac from our anchorage location near Ford Island, Guyana. The road turned out to be one of the best birding areas yet.

Groups birding their way down the road

Groups birding their way down the road — Photo: Peter English

One of the best birds of the morning was undoubtedly the Fiery-tailed Awlbill. This hummingbird was a new species for all of the VENT clients and most of the VENT leaders. Its bill is both serrated and upturned at the tip, making it striking even at a distance (no one knows the function of these bill adaptations). Most everyone got good looks at the Awlbill as it flew to a bare branch every 10-20 minutes for the entire morning.

Birding up and down the road produced a huge list of other species. Double-toothed Kites and an Ornate Hawk-Eagle were seen soaring above, while the many understory and canopy mixed-species feeding flocks came up to the edge of the road. Highlights included good views of a perched Caica Parrot, repeated glimpses of Crimson Topaz, Paradise Jacamar, several Pompadour Cotingas, Swallow-winged Puffbird, Guianan Toucanet, Waved Woodpecker, Chestnut-rumped Woodcreeper, Brown-bellied Antwren, Black-throated Antbird, Ferruginous-backed Antbird, McConnell's Flycatcher, White-crowned Manakin, Tiny Tyrant-Manakin, Plumbeous Euphonia, Red-rumped Cacique, and Screaming Pihas calling all along the road.

Black-throated Antbird

Black-throated Antbird — Photo: Peter English

We returned to the ship at noon so that we could ride the high tide over the sandbar at the mouth of the Essequibo River and begin our cruise to Suriname. The channel in the Essequibo took us very near some of the islands in the river, where we had great looks at many perched hawks including Great Black Hawk, Crane Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, and Yellow-headed Caracara. We are all looking forward to tomorrow: our first day of birding in Suriname.

VENT leaders David Ascanio and Steve Hilty

VENT leaders David Ascanio and Steve Hilty — Photo: Peter English

Oct 30, 2004

Last night after the daily update was filed, Manzoor Nadir, Minister of Tourism, Industry and Commerce for Guyana, met with Victor and Brian O'Shea to discuss how Guyana might attract more ecotourists, especially birders. Mr. Manzoor said that his department had identified birders as one of the markets they wanted to target. Victor replied that VENT planned to offer more tours to Guyana because it offers the opportunity to see many species of birds found only in northeastern South America. Victor encouraged the Minister to try have someone locate a place in Guyana where Crimson Fruitcrows might often be seen. At present there is no place where this spectacular species can be reliably seen. The Crimson Fruitcrow is one of the most spectacular birds in the world. Victor felt the meeting with the Minister was very productive and he was impressed with Mr. Nadir's interest in ecotourism and birding.

But to get to today: it was a full-day outing for everyone on the ship. We all went to Shanklands Resort in the early morning for some spectacular birding. Groups split the morning between watching the clearing overlooking the Essequibo River and birding a wonderful nearby river by Zodiac. One of the big highlights from the clearing was fantastic looks a Red-shouldered Macaws. These small macaws are only found in Northeastern South America, and are found in abundance at Shanklands. Other highlights included perched Orange-winged Parrots, nesting Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets, a variety of tanagers and euphonias, and Black Nunbirds.

Red-shouldered Macaws

Red-shouldered Macaws — Photo: Peter English

In mid-morning about half of the group left for an optional visit to the Kaietur Falls, located 100 miles southwest of the area where we have been birding, in a stunning location where the Guyanan Shield drops down to the lowlands. Here one of the major rivers of Guyana drops almost 800 feet to the valley below, making it the largest single drop of any waterfall in the world. We were also able to watch over 100 miles of virtually unbroken rainforest pass below us as we flew to and from the falls. Seeing this vast expanse of wild forest was one of the highlights of the afternoon.

Kaietur Falls

Kaietur Falls — Photo: Peter English

The group that stayed at Shanklands had a great day of birding the trails throughout the afternoon. Highlights included singing Sungrebe, a number of Helmeted Pygmy-Tyrants both feeding young and building nests, and close-up views of Red-fanned Parrots, one of the most striking and beautiful parrots in South America. They also found a Three-toed Sloth with young moving about in the top of a tree. The group list of the day exceeded 150 species.

Both groups reunited on the ship at sunset and again saw hundreds and hundreds of Orange-winged Parrots flying down the Essequibo to their roost sites. This was the last sunset that we will see in Guyana, but the wildness and beauty of this small South American country will remain with us.

VENT leaders clockwise from center kneeling: Paul Greenfield, Peter English, Carol Walton, Victor Emanuel, David Wolf

VENT leaders clockwise from center kneeling: Paul Greenfield, Peter English, Carol Walton, Victor Emanuel, David Wolf

Oct 29, 2004

This morning we waited for high tide and then crossed over the sandbar at the mouth of the Essequibo River. With forest and scattered houses on both sides, we found Laughing Gulls, Large-billed Terns, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and even a few Peregrine Falcons. We anchored about 20 miles up the river, and in the afternoon and some of the group went on hikes while others explored small tributaries in Zodiacs.

Crossing over the sandbar into the Essequibo River

Crossing over the sandbar into the Essequibo River — Photo: Peter English

Both the hikes and the Zodiac explorations found wonderful things: one Zodiac came across a Sunbittern and Red-and-green Macaws, while another found a Three-toed Sloth. The groups that hiked on trails found a great variety of birds including Pompador Cotinga, Blue Dacnis, Dusky Parrot, Red-shouldered Macaw, Yellow-throated Flycatcher, Pygmy Kingfisher and Paradise Jacamar.

Andy Whittaker showing a Paradise Jacamar to his group

Andy Whittaker showing a Paradise Jacamar to his group — Photo: Peter English

As we returned to the ship, we were treated to hundreds of Orange-winged Parrots flying down the river to their roost as a beautiful sunset slowly developed behind us. It was a great way to end an exciting day.

Returning to the ship at sunset

Returning to the ship at sunset — Photo: Peter English

Oct 28, 2004

This morning we birded a beautiful open stream from Zodiacs. With the sun at our backs almost the entire morning, we had wonderful views of a great variety of birds.


Hoatzin — Photo: Peter English

One of the birds that always captivates visitors to South America is the Hoatzin. This bizarre species can sometimes be difficult to see in the dense foliage around streams, but today everyone was able to get fantastic looks at Hoatzins up close. During the evening recap, Steve Hilty gave a talk about Hoatzins and explained just what marvelous birds they are.

White-throated Toucan

White-throated Toucan — Photo: Peter English

Another of the birds that most of the clients have been hoping to see well are the large toucans. One of today's highlights was a pair of White-throated Toucans in perfect light. Many of the leaders noted that the White-throated Toucan subspecies in this area has a reddish bill, while those in the western portion of the range have a black lower mandible.

In addition to these quintessentially tropical birds, highlights from the morning birding today included great views of Horned Screamers, Snail Kites, Green Ibis flying past, five species of large parrots and macaws, Greater Anis, and Black-capped Donacobius.

Black-capped Donacobius

Black-capped Donacobius — Photo: Peter English

One other highlight of the morning was the very unexpected sighting of a Giant Otter that came towards a Zodiac to investigate (one of the leaders was playing the raucous call of the Horned Screamer at the time). Seeing Giant Otters in this location is further confirmation of its remoteness and wildness.

Once underway to Guyana, Victor gave his talk on the Ten Best Birding Areas in the World. Taking us around the world with his vast experience studying nature on every continent, Victor not only listed off his favorite places, but also told a wonderful array of stories. The second talk of the afternoon was given by Peter English, who gave us an overview of the new Napo Wildlife Center, a lodge in Eastern Ecuador that VENT will be supporting with a number of tours (space still available on the New Year's tour with Victor Emanuel and Peter English).

Tomorrow morning we will arrive in Guyana!

Oct 27, 2004

Black-chested Tyrant

Black-chested Tyrant — Photo: Peter English

Two years ago when Steve Hilty and David Ascanio first talked about doing a cruise along the northeast coast of south America, we never in our wildest dreams could have imagined that the first day of that cruise we would make ornithological history. We rediscovered the Orinoco Softail, known from only a few specimens and not seen anywhere for 34 years. We also saw the Black-chested Tyrant, a flycatcher known from only a few specimens and localities. Both of these birds were lifers for Steve Hilty, who wrote the Birds of Venezuela, and also for all the VENT leaders. Fortunately, almost everyone saw both of these incredibly rare birds. I have never seen Steve Hilty and David Ascanio so excited as they were today.
Cruising up the stream in a Zodiac

Cruising up the stream in a Zodiac — Photo: Peter English

We spent all day today birding gallery forest and savannah along a small tributary of the Orinoco. Much of the time we were birding from Zodiacs, but we also walked into the forest on a trail that we opened for this trip. It was an incredibly productive and enjoyable day. In addition to the two rarities above, highlights included perched Blue-and-yellow Macaws, White-throated Toucans, Cream-colored Woodpeckers, Crimson-hooded Manakins, an Agami Heron, Slender-billed Kites, Hoatzins, and Festive Parrots.

A Festive Parrot eating fruit

A Festive Parrot eating fruit — Photo: Peter English

It is hard to imagine how we could have had a better beginning to our trip, and we are excited to see what tomorrow brings. We are ending the night tonight watching a total eclipse of the moon from the top deck of our ship.

Oct 26, 2004

Boarding the ship in the evening

Boarding the ship in the evening — Photo: Peter English

We all arrived last night in Trinidad on several different flights and were taken by bus to the Clipper Adventurer. After a quick processing onboard the ship (we all have coded ID badges and they even took our pictures for their files), we got a late dinner and settled into our cabins (which are really nice). The ship left port at about midnight last night, and we have spent most of the day today learning about the ship and the region that we will be visiting.

David Ascanio and Steve Hilty gave wonderful talks explaining the history and biogeography of the entire area that we will be visiting on this cruise, and putting into context tomorrow's visit to the gallery forest near El Toro. Then David Wolf gave an excellent talk about how to approach birding, what to look for in new species, and how to handle the overwhelming number of new species that we will all see on this trip.

David Wolf

David Wolf — Photo: Peter English

By Mid-afternoon the water turned whitish from silt flowing out from the Orinoco. The distance that this penetrates into the ocean is impressive. In the late afternoon we entered the mouth of the Orinoco Delta on what is known as "Rio Grande." Here in the delta, the Orinoco splits into many different smaller rivers and the Rio Grande is the largest and southernmost of these.

As we moved up the delta in the late afternoon light, we were able to get great looks at dozens of Large-billed Terns perching on buoys and flying past the ship.

Large-billed Terns

Large-billed Terns — Photo: Peter English

We saw a very large congregation of what were probably Orange-winged Parrots, but unfortunately they were a bit too far off to see well. Closer to the ship we saw a Laughing Falcon perched in a dead tree, a King Vulture fly down to its riverside roost, and had a pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws fly right over the ship. After all this action, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset and a wonderful Captain's Welcome Dinner.